Author's Note: A slightly AU version of Dean s first weeks back from Hell. First appeared in Brotherhood 8 zine.

The first time it happened, Sam chalked it up to an excess of adrenaline. After all, in their line of work it wasn't entirely unheard of for someone to receive an injury without immediately noticing it.

Of course, in hindsight, Sam realized that the quantity of blood associated with his brother's wound should have tipped Dean off that something was not quite right.

The second time it happened, Sam had a moment to be concerned, before the black dog turned from savaging Dean's right arm and came at him.

Third time is always the charm, Sam thought bitterly, his unconscious brother draped over his shoulder as he made his way back to the Impala. They had managed to kill whatever the hell that thing in the woods had been, but not before it had slammed Dean into the ground, left leg caught awkwardly underneath him on impact. Though Sam had heard the bone crack, Dean had simply gotten up after Sam had finished the creature off and started walking again, insisting that, no, his leg couldn t be broken because it didn t hurt, that he knew what a broken leg felt like and this definitely wasn't it because how in the hell would he be walking on a freaking broken leg. And then the leg had given out entirely, and Dean had muttered something about not feeling so hot and passed out.

Sam sat by his brother's hospital bed, feeling guilty for not realizing sooner that the universe's favorite game to play with the Winchester family was Gotcha. But when he was honest with himself, he wasn't surprised by his delayed reaction.

The past few weeks, Sam had been riding an adrenaline high of his own. Dean had returned suddenly and bodily from Hell, and he hadn't been possessed, or a revenant, or anything else evil. It was Dean. Not a ruined soul suffering from post-traumatic Hell stress, just Dean, and Sam's emotional state had been a volatile mixture of thankfulness and dread and disbelief. He had been so focused on the state of his brother's soul, on keeping an eye out for anything off about Dean's psyche and on getting back into the rhythm of hunting and living with his brother again, that he'd missed physical signs that something wasn't quite right with Dean.

Sam was pulled from his thoughts when he noticed Dean beginning to stir, and managed to keep his expression neutral when his brother noticed the cast on his left leg and began cursing aloud.

"So I m thinking we may have a slight problem," Sam said mildly, after Dean had spent his wrath.

"Really? What was your first clue, Sam? I'm gonna be laid up for weeks, and Lilith's trail is going to go cold!"

Sam understood Dean's frustration. The Winchesters, unable to explain why or how Dean was back and uncertain about the future status of Dean's soul, had decided that getting rid of Lilith was their only way to be sure Dean would never return to Hell.

But right now they had a more immediate problem, so Sam held up a hand to quiet his brother. "Bobby's keeping tabs on her. If she pops up on the radar again, we'll know. That's not what I'm talking about."

Dean's brow creased in puzzlement. "Money problems?" he asked. "'Cause I can do AMA right now, and we can blow this joint. Give me a week or two, and I'll be able to stand long enough to hustle some pool-"

Sam interrupted with a shake of his head. "No, Dean. The money's fine. I'm talking about your inability to feel any pain."

"What?"

The younger Winchester sighed. "You haven't noticed? Since you've been...back...you don't seem to feel it when you get hurt. Remember the poltergeist in Dayton that got you with the poker? The black dog that practically ate you?"

Dean winced a bit at the mention of the black dog, then scoffed, "Those were probably just freak adrenaline things, Sam. You know how you don't really feel injuries when you're in the middle of a fight. And I probably got the painkillers in my system before my body could really figure out what was happening, you know?"

Sam lifted a skeptical brow. He knew-and Dean knew-that Dean was reaching for an explanation. "Okay, well, how about the burn on your arm you got from that clumsy waitress a week ago?"

"The coffee must not have been that hot-I still say you overreacted!"

"Your skin blistered, Dean."

Dean snorted but didn't argue. The burns had been pretty bad.

"And what about right now, man? How does your leg feel right now?"

Dean opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, frowning.

Sam nodded shortly, his brother's reaction telling him everything he needed to know.

But Dean apparently wasn't ready to give in just yet. He looked Sam in the eye and asked, "Did I just get a dose of morphine?"

Sam shook his head, and Dean dropped his gaze to his lap, lips thinning. When he looked up again, Sam could see the emotions flicker across his brother's expression before he covered it with a shrug and a flip reply.

"So I can't feel pain right now, so what? Maybe my nerve endings got fried while I was in Hell-it just means the bad guys can't put me down so easily." He offered a half-grin. "Who knew going to Hell had benefits?"

"It also means that you can do yourself a lot of damage and not realize it until it's too late," Sam countered.

"And that I won't need to take medicine that slows me down and screws up my reaction time," his brother retorted.

Sam ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. "Doesn't this bother you?"

Dean shook his head and fixed Sam with a penetrating gaze. "It's not the first weird thing that's ever happened to me because of this job, dude. Seems like it's you who's bothered."

Sam was surprised. "What?"

Dean paused for a moment, obviously considering how much to say. Then he squared his shoulders. "C'mon, Sam. I know you've spent the entire time since I got back waiting for the other shoe to drop-hell, I've been waiting for the same thing. You're worrying about whether or not I came back wrong, and I don't blame you. But, man, if I managed to get out of Hell in one piece and the only price for it is that I can't feel pain, then I'm counting us lucky on this one!"

"This is more serious than that, Dean. Given the life we live, you could be mortally wounded and not realize it. Not to mention minor things that could get infected-I did some research on this-"

"Of course you did," Dean put in glumly, but Sam was undeterred.

"And it's a pretty devastating disability by itself! Besides, what if you're wrong?" Sam asked, and again Dean looked puzzled.

"What?"

"What if that isn t the only price? What if...?"

Dean held up a hand, and Sam suddenly realized he wasn't the only person worried that his brother's little "side effect" of a stay in Hell might be the start of a larger problem. It also occurred to him that Dean's denial might have been for Sam's sake as well, in order to not freak him out-and wasn't that just typical. But before Sam could marshal his arguments to accuse Dean of being, well, Dean, the older Winchester spoke.

"So what do you want to do, then?"

"I-wait. You think we should do something?"

Dean gave another half-grin. "I got nothing else to do for a while, looks like." Off Sam's glare, he relented. "It bothers you, Sam, and you're right-it's a problem. Denying it won't help, so let's figure it out and fix it.

Sam shook his head, incredulous. "Who are you and what have you done with Dean Winchester?"

He laughed as he ducked the plastic cup of ice that Dean chucked at him in response.

###

Bobby had sighed and muttered something about changing his damn phone number, but had promised to meet the brothers at their motel as soon as Dean was discharged. That happened quickly; Dean s lack of pain allowed him to get up and around on crutches much sooner than he would have otherwise. He and Sam had decided to keep his underlying condition a secret from the hospital staff if possible, mainly because Dean didn't want to "turn into a human pincushion for those mad scientist freaks," and Sam agreed. Dean's condition was supernatural, not genetic, and the cause of science wouldn't be furthered by medical testing on this particular subject.

The doctors were amazed, if cautious, about Dean's ability to bounce back, and Sam was scrupulous about keeping Dean immobile as much as possible. They'd have no way of knowing if he was sabotaging his body's attempts to heal by moving around.

A day after Sam had lugged his unconscious brother into the hospital, he found himself circling to the passenger side of the Impala to open the door for Dean, and to prevent Dean from merely leaping out of the car onto his casted leg. After a brief struggle, during which Dean complained loudly and at length about being "babied," the brothers made it to their temporary lodging: an efficiency in a shabby if moderately clean mom-and-pop establishment on the edge of town.

Bobby arrived a few hours later. Dean, propped up against the headboard of the bed farthest from the door with his casted leg supported by pillows, acknowledged him with a nod and a wave, his mouth full of chili cheeseburger. Sam had long ago finished his chicken salad sandwich, and stood to help Bobby with his gear.

"Thanks for coming, Bobby," he began, but the older hunter merely grunted.

"It would be nice if you boys could stick to one major crisis at a time," he grumbled, but the remarks were softened with a grin.

"C'mon, Bobby, you know you'd be bored stiff if it wasn't for us," Dean teased, crumpling the cheeseburger wrapper and tossing it at the trashcan. It missed, and Sam crossed the room to retrieve it.

"Seriously man, thanks," Sam said. "I don't know what we'd do without you."

"Yeah, well, you can start making it up to me by helping me get some more stuff out of the truck," Bobby replied, and Sam dutifully followed him outside.

"So you've obviously been busy," Dean drawled after Bobby and Sam had brought in what appeared to be half of Singer's library. Bobby merely lifted a scathing eyebrow and started sifting through the piles of books and papers until he found a battered old notebook.

"You're keeping me that way," he replied, paging through the notebook. "Okay, we've got three basic problems here, all related: how did Dean come back, where is Lilith, and why can't Dean feel pain?" Bobby looked up, and Sam and Dean nodded in agreement.

"Right. Well, if we can answer the first question, we'll be set to get to the others. I found a ritual that will tell us what kinds of mystical energy were involved with Dean's return. Then we should be able to narrow down the playing field." Bobby put down the notebook and spun it to face Sam. Here's what we need-I've got a friend nearby who's bringing some of the more arcane ingredients."

Sam studied the spell and the list of necessary supplies for a moment. "This is pretty complicated, Bobby."

"Yeah, that's why it's taken me so long to get the required items together." Bobby reached into one of the smaller duffel bags he d brought and retrieved a black grease pencil. "Sam? Can you start preparing the ritual space? I need you to copy the runes and symbols from the notebook onto the ceiling and floor at cardinal points."

Sam nodded and took the pencil, already studying the symbols he needed to copy. Bobby reached back into the bag and brought out a vial of liquid. "Sanctified oil," he explained tersely, first handing the bottle to Dean and then rummaging around until he found a small notepad, which he tossed onto the elder Winchester's bed. "You need to do some anointing-the order and incantations are in there. Let me know if there's somewhere you can't reach." He didn't acknowledge Dean's horrified grimace, instead checking his watch. "Okay, my source should be here soon with the rest of the supplies. I m gonna step outside to keep an eye out for her." Bobby turned back to Dean, scowl firmly in place. "Try not to mortally wound yourself while I'm gone." With that, he exited the motel room, leaving Dean to notice his brother's small smile.

"What are you smirking at?" he demanded, and Sam laughed outright.

###

Bobby returned to the room twenty minutes later, accompanied by a tall, thin woman with a large mop of unruly orange-red hair and a freckled complexion. She strode in behind Bobby as if she had been expected, set down a large shopping bag emblazoned with the Starbucks logo on the efficiency's kitchen table, and shucked her denim jacket, tossing it onto the back of one of the kitchen chairs.

"This is Lucy," said Bobby by way of introduction, and the redhead met both the Winchesters' eyes briefly and inclined her head in acknowledgement.

Then she focused on Dean, who sat bare-chested on the bed, bottle of oil in one hand and the notebook balanced on his cast. "You must be Dean," she said matter-of-factly.

"What tipped you off?" came the irritated response from the figure on the bed. Sam concealed his snicker with a slight cough, earning another glare from his brother and a growled, "Can we just get on with this?" addressed to the room at large.

Lucy appeared completely unfazed by Dean's embarrassed surliness and answered evenly, "Sure thing. You done with the oil?"

Dean nodded, and Lucy stepped over to retrieve it from him. Don't lean against anything-we don't want the symbols to smear," she said, corking the bottle and putting it on the table next to her bag.

She then reached into the bag and began pulling out supplies: a small package of colored birthday candles, some crayons, a sketch pad, and bundles of Ziploc bags full of herbs. When she was done, she straightened and met Sam's puzzled gaze.

"Colored wax is colored wax," Lucy said. "The source doesn't matter-but don't tell the folks at the local occult supply store I told you so." She turned and studied Dean again, who squirmed almost imperceptibly under her sharp blue gaze. "We've got to get him into the circle, but we can't touch him," she said.

"Won't be a problem," Dean replied, pushing himself smoothly off the bed and onto two legs.

"Dean!" Sam exclaimed. "It's too early to put your full weight on the leg!"

But Dean dismissed Sam with a wave. "Dude, I need to get into the circle. It's, like, five steps from the bed, and you can't touch me right now. Might as well take advantage of my superpower, right?"

Sam clenched his jaw but subsided, although he hovered nearby as Dean made his way to the space that had been cleared in the room and eased himself down inside the circle.

Lucy had busied herself with measuring and crumbling the different herbs together into a small silver bowl, then pouring a bit of the anointing oil over the mixture. She then placed the candles at the cardinal points of the circle, lit them, and said, "Okay, Bobby, whenever you're ready."

The grizzled hunter retrieved a book from the stack on the counter and thumbed to a specific page. Then he turned to the man in the circle.

"Dean, the spell will just show us the patterns of mystical energy involved in bringing you back. Lucy here's an expert in reading that stuff, so we should be able to tell you what kinds of things had a hand in getting you out of Hell, if not their actual names and addresses. You shouldn't feel a thing. I mean-Aw hell, you know what I mean."

Dean nodded and gave Bobby a small smile. "Let s do it," he said.

Bobby handed Sam a photocopied sheet from the back of the book he held. "Stand opposite me and we'll chant this together." Sam looked the incantation over. "It wasn't complex, but it was long, and he raised a questioning gaze to Bobby. "It'll take about an hour to complete this spell," Bobby explained, and Sam looked to Dean.

"You gonna be okay?" he asked, and his brother nodded again, exasperated.

"Can we get started before my butt goes numb?"

Lucy cleared her throat, drawing their attention. She lit a match and held it over the silver bowl. "When I let go of the match, start the ritual," she said, dropping the match as Sam and Bobby's voices began the chant.

The herb mixture flared and ignited, and a pungent, sweet smoke filled the room. Nothing else happened for quite a while, just the murmur of voices and the drift of the smoke. The atmosphere in the room became almost hypnotically relaxing.

As Bobby and Sam finished reading, Dean saw the first flash of pale blue light appear on his torso, and Lucy, who had been silently monitoring the ritual, leaned forward intently. Soon the pale blue light was joined by flashes of a brilliant gold and a pure white.

"What do those colors mean?" asked Sam as intermittent light patterns splashed across his brother's chest.

Bobby glanced at Lucy, who was smiling. "Those colors are associated with positive energies," she said, and Bobby sighed in relief.

For his part, Dean merely looked incredulous. "The good guys brought me back?"

"It's not beyond the realm of possibility, boy," Bobby snapped, then cleared his throat and shrugged at Dean and Sam. "You both deserve a break."

Just then, the bright colors swirled and shifted again, but now a dark red pulse began flashing as well, followed by deep purple and black. Lucy was frowning now, studying the pattern. "This doesn t make any sense," she said, but Dean, who had been craning his neck to see whether the light pattern was present on his back as well as his torso, stopped his restless shifting and looked at the redhead.

"Sure it does, sweetheart-this is pretty much par for the course for a Winchester," he sighed. "I guess the dark stuff is negative energy?"

Lucy nodded, then held up the pad where she had used her crayons to sketch the location and colors that were swirling around Dean. "But the two never coincide like this," she said, indicating the disorganized morass of color with a wave. "I mean, both energies present like this? No discernable pattern? It s total chaos!"

Sam's head snapped up. "Chaos?" he echoed, frowning. He didn't get to add anything else, as the motel room door suddenly shook under the force of a thunderous knocking and a deep voice outside bellowed, "Room service!"

"What the hell?" Dean was trying to stand. Sam had grabbed a gun from the nightstand.

Bobby pulled Lucy away from the door as it suddenly blew inward off of its hinges, and a strong gust of wind extinguished the candles. A slight figure strode into the room and snapped its fingers, and the lights came on.

"Howdy, fellas," said the Trickster, "You rang?"

###

Dean had struggled to his feet in an attempt to reach the interloper, but the Trickster stopped him with a grin. "Well, well. Aren't you a sight for sore eyes?" He indicated with a wave of his hand the fading spell's muted colors still flashing around the older Winchester. "Nice look, by the way."

Dean merely glared at him. "Why are you here?"

The Trickster tilted his head and raised his eyebrows in an expression of faux sympathy. "Oh, you didn't know? Your little spell doesn't just tell you who's been messing around with you, Dean, it also lets them know that you're looking for them. Thought I'd pop in and end the suspense-plus, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to officially welcome you back to the land of the living."

"What did you do?" Sam stepped forward, his voice low and hard, gun pointed at the smirking figure's head.

His motion shifted the focus from Dean, and the older Winchester used the opportunity to check on Bobby and Lucy. The two other hunters were edging slowly backward, out of the line of fire and toward the weapons duffel.

The Trickster looked affronted and put a hand over his heart. "Me? I did what I was told." He jerked his head in Dean's direction again and continued, "The extras are all thanks to you, Sammy."

"Wait a minute," Dean started, shuffling sideways to put himself between Sam and the Trickster, as much to stop his brother from doing something stupid as to protect the demigod.

"Still the same old big brother, eh?" The Trickster smirked, then raised his hands as Sam moved purposely from behind Dean, gun still trained on their unwelcome guest.

"Whatever you did, fix it." Sam's eyes were narrowed, his gun hand steady, his body trembling with rage.

Dean reached out a hand, touching Sam's shoulder, but he jerked away angrily. "Hey, Sammy, hey dude, you gotta calm down," Dean said.

"No, I don't," Sam forced between clenched teeth, not looking at Dean. "I am sick and tired of being jerked around by this thing!"

Dean tried again, and this time Sam allowed the touch. "Yeah, me too, man, but it's not like that gun's gonna do anything to him. Why don't you let him explain what's happening." He turned a glare on the demigod. "You are here to explain, right?"

"I knew I liked you, kid," said the Trickster with a grin as he calmly took a seat on the nearest bed, scooting back to lean against the headboard and casually crossing his arms over his chest. His expression grew serious, dark eyes narrowing. "I didn't bring you back, not by myself-that stuff's way above my pay grade. And, no, I m not at liberty to say who did," he added, quelling Sam with a look. "But believe it or not, I kinda like you chuckleheads. Or at least one of you. Dean gets it, and you both amuse me. So I figured I'd help out by granting Samwise here a wish."

Sam s shoulders had lost only a miniscule amount of their tension. "A wish," he repeated dully, just as Dean put in a heartfelt "Bullshit!"

The Trickster grinned. "Think hard, Sam. All those lonely nights, crying yourself to sleep over poor 'ol Dean languishing in hell, clutching a piece of his worn-out costume jewelry and wishing, wishing..."

Dean's hand tightened on Sam's shoulder, and his voice was granite. "Get to the point."

"That's what I'm doing, Sparky. C'mon, Sam, what did you wish?"

Dean looked at Sam with concern: his brother had paled and lowered the gun. "Sam?" Dean put his other hand on his brother's face and turned him so that they were eye-to-eye. "Sam, you didn't do anything wrong."

Sam looked at him, then at the Trickster. "I wished that Dean wasn't suffering-that he wasn't in pain. That he couldn't feel any pain."

"Wish granted!" The Trickster jumped to his feet, but Dean was already on him, one hand twisted in the demigod's shirt.

"Are you freaking kidding me? You took advantage of his suffering and twisted it for your amusement, and now you're here to gloat?"

"I'm a Trickster, numbnuts. Teaching idiots like you the finer points of irony is kinda my raison d'etre."

"What the hell was Sam going to learn from this?" Dean asked, incredulous.

"I dunno, maybe to be careful what you wish for? That your precious family isn't the center of the freaking universe? Let's see...maybe even, 'what's dead should stay dead'?"

The Trickster pulled free of Dean's grip and straightened, smirk firmly in place. "I've gone round and round with you boys, but the lessons just don't seem to take. Neither of you seems able to grasp the simple fact that you can't save everyone, and your inability to just let go and roll with it has landed the cosmos in a pretty messed-up state of affairs, wouldn't you say?"

He shook his head and began pacing, punctuating his remarks by jabbing his finger in Dean's direction. "I mean, look at you! Selling your soul for your brother, when you knew exactly how crappy that felt when it was you on the receiving end. News flash-Tricksters really aren't fans of hypocrisy, but at least you had the balls to own your stupidity at the end and pay the debt without turning into a begging wimp, so I called it even. Then the universe intervened, and I was forced to be a party to the colossal screw-up that brought you back. Frankly, I saw a chance for some payback, and it was too good to pass up."

"And you," the Trickster turned to point at Sam, "getting a little fast and loose with the whole moral code thing after big brother bit it, and using him as the excuse when you know full well Dean would have been horrified by the things you dealt with, the corners you cut and the deals you made-please. For such an alleged brainiac, you surely are thick."

Dean cut a questioning look at Sam, who didn't meet his eyes but kept glaring at the Trickster, jaw clenched.

"I even kept my word-the best message would have been killing Dean after he came back free and clear. Not even Sam would have stooped to pulling you out of your heavenly reward, and maybe he could have concentrated on yanking his gigantic head out of his ass instead! But no, I was 'discouraged' from killing Dean. I am good at my job, however, so I did the next best thing: I gave him the perfect means to kill himself."

The Trickster spread his arms as though waiting for applause and looked around the room. "C'mon, you gotta admit that was pretty clever!"

Dean looked at Bobby. "Give it here." In an instant, Bobby tossed Dean a wooden stake and the elder Winchester surged forward, grasping the Trickster by the throat and pressing the stake to its heart. Dean shook the demigod slightly, emphasizing each word. "You are going to undo this, and you are never going to see us again, or I swear to God, I will hunt you down and kill you. Understand?"

The Trickster's eyes glinted, his gaze moving between the stake and Dean's face. "Careful what you wish for, kiddo," he said, "'cause I might not know much, but I do know you weren't brought back for cupcakes and tea parties. You're in for a world of hurt, dude, and most of it? Will be comin' at you from brother Sammy here. He tilted his head, considering. "But your wish is my command." The Trickster grasped Dean's amulet with one hand, snapped his fingers with the other.

Dean's world exploded into flashing lights. He saw stars and heard screaming, and then he was swallowed by darkness.

###

Dean woke slowly, disappointed but unsurprised to find himself back in a hospital bed. "This crap is really getting old," he muttered to the empty room and tried to push himself to a seated position, only to freeze when a lightning bolt of pain shot through his left leg. As if on cue, his right arm also began aching and throbbing, and both were accompanied by a sharp pulling sensation in his right lower abdomen.

Dean dropped flat again, groaned, and pounded his fist-his left, which was the only portion of his body not hurting-into the mattress. "Son of a bitch!"

"Hey, take it easy." A warm hand gently pressed his shoulder down, and Sam's face appeared above him as his brother leaned across the bed to hit the call button.

Before he could get out any questions, Sam had already launched into an explanation.

"You kinda screwed up your leg-they put a pin in it and recasted it," he said.

"Ah," Dean said and fell silent for a moment, waiting for the inevitable I told you so. But it didn't come. Instead, Sam sat beside the bed with a sigh and kept talking.

"Bobby said that when the Trickster returned your ability to feel pain, all the pain you hadn't felt since you d been back returned at once. It kind of overloaded you."

Dean turned his head to look more closely at his brother. Sam was sporting stubble, and there were circles under his eyes.

"How long?" he asked.

"Four days," Sam said. "You went into shock, and then there was the leg surgery, and there was talk of brain damage-all those pain receptors and neurons firing, man, your EEG looked like a seismograph..." He trailed off, and Dean saw the lost look in his brother's eyes.

Dean gingerly lifted his right arm and poked at Sam with it until he met Dean's eyes. "Hey. It's okay, Sam. I'm back to normal." Sam gave him a disbelieving look, and Dean continued, "Okay, my leg hurts like a bitch, and apparently that black dog bite and poker wound aren't completely healed either, but it's normal pain, Sam, okay?"

But Sam was shaking his head. "It's not okay, Dean. The Trickster was right. When you were gone I... It was bad. Really bad. I did stuff I never thought I d do, cut deals, bargained with evil... "

"You didn't do anything permanent, did you?"

Sam must have seen the panic in Dean's face, because he was quick to reassure his brother. "No, no. Not like that. It's just...the line, it got blurrier and a little easier to cross, and when I think about it, I know what I'm capable of now, and it's bad. Really bad."

"Sam, we've all done things we aren't proud of...but you see the line now, right? You won't cross it. I won't let you."

Sam merely nodded and looked away, and Dean knew that his little brother remained unconvinced. So did Dean, if he was honest with himself. He stared up at the ceiling of the hospital room. The Trickster's words echoed in his head, mocking him.

Dean fought the curl of fear that started in his belly, telling himself firmly that if he could deal with four months in Hell, he could certainly deal with his little brother and a Trickster's vague prophecy. Then he glanced at Sam again, noting the new edge to his features. Sam had been in Hell, too, Dean realized, and the difference was that his brother could still remember every minute of the experience. He cleared his throat, and Sam turned to look at him.

"We're back in this thing together now, Sammy," he said, putting every ounce of conviction he had into his voice. "You and me, we're stronger than some demon army, we're stronger than some lame-ass Trickster, and we're going to get through this and come out on top. As long as we're together, we can do this." He held Sam's gaze until he saw his brother's eyes soften, the recent hard veneer temporarily replaced by the old Sammy, the one who believed what his big brother told him.

Sam nodded, a small smile on his face. "I'm going to go see what's keeping that nurse," he said, standing and heading toward the hallway. He turned back just before he exited, and his smile grew. "Thanks, Dean," he said, then disappeared.

Dean huffed out a sigh and resumed his study of the ceiling. Mission accomplished for the time being: Sam believed him. Now Dean just had to convince himself.

"You're in for a world of hurt, dude, and most of it? Will be comin' at you from brother Sammy."

Dean closed his eyes and did something he hadn't done in ages: he prayed.